Saturday, November 24, 2012

Campaign map to tabletop and back again

There really do not seem to be that many systems out there that can translate from campaign map to tabletop and back. I think a big reason for this is:
  • Tabletop rules, in an attempt to reach a definitive conclusion in a reasonable amount of time, have too high a casualty rate.
  • There are an incredible number of variables to model for a campaign that just don't come into play for the tabletop, such as replacement rates, recruiting, training, etc. Adding that campaign complexity adds tremendously to the body of rules.
I've come to the conclusion that the "recovery rate" for casualties after a battle has to be as generous "casualty rate" is during the battle. Otherwise you end up with very short campaigns or unrealistic replacement and recruitment rules.

A Review of Campaign Rules

Looking through my library I find that I have four (readily available) rule sets that deal with tabletop gaming and campaigns: Tony Bath's Setting Up a Wargames Campaign, Bruce Quarrie's Napoleon's Campaigns in Miniature, WRG's De Bellis Antiquitatis (DBA), and Real Time Wargames' The World Turned Upside Down. (I also have Real Time Wargames' To the Last Gaiter Button, but I have not been able to figure out the rules. I may have an incomplete copy with pages missing.) I thought I would review how each of them tackle this problem.

Tony Bath's Setting Up a Wargames Campaign

This is a classic book that I first read about 35 years ago. I purchased the 2009 re-print from John Curry, which included Tony Bath's Peltast and Pila Ancient Wargaming Rules. This book has a lot of ideas about a lot of areas for a campaign, including economics, recruitment and training, building maps, etc.

From the campaign-to-tabletop-and-back aspect Tony presents two situations to consider: where one side voluntarily decides to withdraw and where a failed army morale check forces one side to withdraw from the battlefield. Let's look at the latter case.

For starters, army morale is check at 33% losses. The army rolls a D6 and on a '5' or '6' they can fight on. A roll of '3' or '4' allows the army to retire in good, while a '1' or '2' requires all units in melee (when their army fails morale) to automatically surrender, while the rest of the army withdraws in disorder. Tony uses a method of cascading failure – meaning that once you fail you keep throwing morale checks until you succeed or you reach a certain number of failures – which results in the army having one of the following morale states:

  • Withdrawing in good order
  • Withdrawing in disorder
  • Retire from the field shaken
  • Retire for two map moves shaken
  • Rout shaken to the nearest friendly fortress, to await reinforcements
  • Rout two map moves shaken and two more moves reorganizing

Tony makes the point that "we could of course merely accept the full losses suffered in the battle; but this would probably reduce our armies quite soon to impotence, and would make no allowances for recoverable wounded, losses and gains in equipment, etc." His method is to have both armies make 25% of their battlefield casualties permanent (dead or seriously wounded) and an additional 25% as wounded (the loser's wounded become prisoners and the winner's are out of action for two moves). Tony goes even further by looking at the loss of equipment, especially missiles.

So, in a nutshell, the method in Setting Up a Wargames Campaign is that 25% of the battlefield casualties are permanent and 25% cause a delay in when the casualties are returned to the ranks. That works for a system in which figure counts play a part, but is harder to adopt for Command and Colors type games (like BattleLore) or element-based games (like DBA). One idea for BattleLore would be for a unit to lose 50% of its lost figures, but that would lead to a lot of bookkeeping, as you would have to track each units real figure count and adjusted figure count, along with when their wounded come back. After a few battles, it could get pretty ugly.

Bruce Quarrie's Napoleon's Campaigns in Miniature

I picked up the revised fourth edition (1992) of this book, originally published in 1977, about a year ago. The book had a single concept I was interested in (accounting for the number of vollies fired and the time spent firing them), and so I sought out a copy. This is a classic 1970s set of rules in which the number of men lost (not figures) are tracked on a roster. Casualty rates tend to be low, as it takes 33 losses to remove a single figure, so morale reduction tends to take a higher significance than casualties (attrition).

Bruce uses statistics from his reading to develop a percentage of troops that will die, be seriously wounded, or be lightly wounded, by arm (infantry, cavalry, and artillery) and by how the casualty was inflicted (artillery fire, musket fire, or melee)! As Bruce puts it: "This sounded complicated, but it isn't. You have to keep a casualty list anyway so you know when to remove a figure (33 men) from the table, and it doesn't take a moment longer to make note 'A' for artillery, 'B' for muskets and 'C' for melee after each casualty figure so that you can refer back afterwards and establish your proportions of dead and wounded."

The only rules I played that tracked casualties in this way was WRG 5th and 6th Editions. The basic "problem" with this method is that you have to be able to easily distinguish between like units, either numbering, lettering, or naming them.

But, continuing with Bruce's method, the basic percentages are that about 50% of all casualties result in death (with only minor variation in the numbers between arms or method of obtaining the casualty). So, Bruce's methods result in an even higher percentage of attrition than Tony's, but again you need to keep in mind that both of these systems feature lower casualty rates than modern rules. BattleLore, for example, features about 33-50% casualty rate for the army and of those units counted, they are down 100%. Granted, it does not necessarily represent 100% wounded and killed, but still the base percentage is high.

WRG's De Bellis Antiquitatis

I have been playing DBA version 2.2 for about four years now. I fell in love with its simplicity of rules, tactical richness, small armies, and quick games.

In DBA, games are fought to 33% casualties to the army (although it can go higher if your last turn is a particularly bad one). As the units are element-based, meaning no figures are removed and the whole unit is removed, unit loss is 0% or 100%. In this respect it is more like BattleLore than either Tony's or Bruce's rules.

DBA is pretty cruel when it comes to campaigns. First off, understand that DBA campaigns are often played to conclusion in the course of a single day, so they have to be harshly deterministic. (At HMGS conventions, they are often played to conclusion in addition to other activities that day!) A campaign consists of four seasonal turns per year, with battles able to occur on three of those four seasons, and with casualty replacements occurring on the fourth season. Put another way, you only get casualty recover once every three battles (assuming you battle every turn).

As the typical DBA game has one side losing 4 out of the 12 elements in the army, that means an army loss of 33% (minimum) with 0% recovery for the loser, and often a similar amount for the winner. When you reach the fourth season, the best you can do is recover back up to 12 elements, but you often cannot even do that as you only regain one element per city held and two for holding your capital. (You start with two cities and a capital, so assuming no loss of cities you can only recover from a single lost battle in a year.) Again, DBA campaigns are meant to get to a conclusion within a day.

Real Time Wargames The World Turned Upside Down

Another set of rules that I heard supported a concept I was interested in – which was area movement on the tabletop – and the fact that it is about the American Revolutionary War, sold me on purchasing these rules. I reviewed and play tested them on my blog Dale's Wargames (review part one and part two; play test part one, part two, and part three; and question and answer part one and part two).

The World Turned Upside Down (TWTUD) uses a point-to-point map and the players move their armies and commanders around it. Armies are indicated in the number of men that comprise it; there are no details to that number, such as how much infantry, cavalry, or artillery, other than whether they are British, Hessian, Loyalist, or Rebel. It is simply the number of men. When you fight a battle, you roll a D6 for each 1,000 men and reference a table to determine what  units make up that force of a 1,000 men. Each 1,000 also has a variable amount of artillery attached to it. This determines your tabletop army.

As the battle is fought, a unit will lose bases – either removed as casualties, prisoners of war, or as stragglers – and after one side loses, these bases are converted back to the number of men lost. Note that you only lose a percentage of the bases, typically 50%, but sometimes 0% (winning sides POWs are recovered) or 33%.


I can see that most of the rules tend towards 50%, which I still think is too high, unless you are specifically using a low casualty rate in your rules. I would tend toward 25%, but as I am using a six-sided die, the rate will have to tend towards 16% and 33%! If you look at my initial post about this campaign, that is essentially what I intend to do. The winner recovers a lost unit on any roll other than the banner color (16% lost) while the loser recovers on any roll other than banner color or a Shield (33% lost). In addition, I indicated some conditions whereby a unit could be routed (miss the next battle only) or demoralized (have one less figure in the next battle only).

The like the TWTUD concept of "rolling for your army" each battle, and only keeping track of the number of men. It seems a little counter-intuitive, but it seems to work. This is very similar to the concept used in BattleLore: Call to Arms, which is Richard Borg's answer to a points system. In it you simply draw cards to determine the composition of your army. Very similar to TWTUD in concept. The difference, of course, is that in Call to Arms the army size is somewhat "fixed"; you always get the same number of cards, and those cards indicate the number (and type) of units you receive.

If you wanted to combine the two concepts a little more, essentially using Call to Arms method for determining army composition and TWTUD's idea of taking casualties to the army size, you could track the losses (either by banner color or banner color and type, depending upon the level of detail you want to maintain) and then your Call to Arms-produced army list would be reduced accordingly. You will have to come up with rules on what happens if Call to Arms does not specify enough troops of the appropriate banner color or type to offset your losses. The most likely idea is to remove a different unit of the same banner color or better (i.e. remove a red for a missing blue, a blue for a missing green, a blue melee for a missing blue missile, etc.).

Throwing a little Kingmaker elements in too you could set objectives on the map that allow you to obtain reinforcements – either Specialist cards to use in battle or specific units – further modifying the Call to Arms army list. Additional ideas include adding restrictions to units, such as troops only being usable in certain areas of the map (e.g. local levies that will not march and fight far from their home).

All of this covers how to handle battles in campaigns, but this blog is not about how to run a campaign, but how to run a solo game (whether a single battle or an entire campaign), so next time I will start fleshing out how to deal with this aspect of campaign gaming.


  1. Thank you very much for this really useful overview.



  2. Hi Dale,
    You missed a couple of reference books on Wargame Campaigns. One is Featherstones's book by that title, which as usual is mostly ideas and suggestions, but has an interesting system of replacements quality which is worth taking a look at, plus just being a pleasure to read. The other is Charles S. Grant's book by the same name, which has rules to cover just about every aspect of campaigns, but is unfortunately almost entirely aimed at the horse & musket era, as is Featherstone's.

    Your WWII company-level rules sound interesting. I hope to see them used for a campaign, as that is a rare item for that era - at least as far as I can tell.